For the past several weeks, the phrase "the Ken Burns effect" has floated through my apartment.
My wife, a garden designer, found herself producing a short documentary about Carl Schurz Park, which plays host to Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the mayor of New York. When she was on the phone with the documentary's director, "the Ken Burns effect" peppered the conversation.
The "effect" typically involves a slow zoom and then pan across a (typically) historical photo or document, which gives the effect of animating it.
Though he did not invent the technique, it has become the creative signature of Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker whose work for PBS has embraced all-American subjects ranging from the Civil War and national parks to jazz and baseball.
In his honor, Apple Computer even created a "Ken Burns Effect" for its iMovie film editing tool.
Last week, on Monday, my wife's documentary premiered at a park fundraiser. Coincidentally, the following day I found myself interviewing Ken Burns.
Burns and his producer and creative partner, Dayton Duncan, have begun working with Tauck World Discovery to design itineraries branded Ken Burns American Journeys. The tours, operated by Tauck, will include guest interactions with experts who have been seen in Burns' films, as well as video narratives that Burns and Duncan have produced to be shown on screens mounted in Tauck tour coaches.
Tauck clearly is hoping to benefit from a secondary definition of "the Ken Burns effect": the attention that follows people and subjects associated with Burns' work.
Television has been notoriously bad at capturing the excitement of travel. At their best, travel shows center on a personality exploring a place, with the place relegated to the role of co-star for that week, not unlike an alien planet on "Star Trek" or a girlfriend on "Seinfeld."
I had assumed that TV was in some ways too limited a medium to capture the travel experience. Film, in my experience, is more fully engaging. It can draw us out of our normal consciousness and put us in the perfect state to change how we look at the world and its possibilities.
There is a deep connection between film and travel. Both have the potential to help us grow as individuals by exposing us to new ideas and surrounding us with unexpected imagery.
Burns' body of work is unique among made-for-TV films in its ability to reveal the hidden complexities of subjects we might believe we already know well. His explorations of our national parks are not travel films, yet they manage to inspire travel; the films are credited in part for a leap of 10 million-plus visitors to our parks this past season.
Both Tauck CEO Dan Mahar and Burns describe their new venture as a "collaboration." Even before they hooked up, Mahar said, he realized they both were in the same business: storytelling.
Burns agrees. "What you do closely resembles what we do," he told Mahar.
But one limitation to his art, Burns concedes, is that it cannot truly capture what it's like when he sees a place "fresh," listening to "the ghosts and echoes" for the first time. Nonetheless, he believes the eponymous Ken Burns American Journeys can add significantly to a tour by revealing the intricacies and nuances of a destination, by telling sophisticated stories in an intimate way.
Film and travel are complementary. No matter how beautifully a film is made, it cannot instill the feeling one gets when watching the sun rise in Canyonlands or raptors soar on thermals in the Tetons. Even so, what one experiences can be deeply enhanced by a skilled filmmaker providing subtle and profound narratives to enable, as Duncan put it, "a deeper experience than if [people] went there on their own."
Burns said that the question all his films address is, "Who are we?"
Travel, I believe, hinges on a different query, one that takes a lifetime to answer: "Who can I become?"
I propose we name this deeply ingrained travel quest after a pioneering tour operator that continues to move people in the direction of discovery: "the Tauck effect."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.